January 1864 began like any other year in Abram Garvin’s life. An enslaved man in his early 20s, Garvin worked as a laborer and blacksmith on the Hart County, Va., farm of his owner, Sinclair Garvin. But that summer Abram Garvin made his way to Louisville, Ky.—possibly with his owner’s permission—and enlisted in Company F of the 108th U.S. Colored Infantry (USCT). Over the next two years, he guarded Confederate prisoners at Rock Island, Ill., reached the rank of sergeant, and ended the war in Mississippi, where the unit mustered out of service on March 1866. Abram Garvin died in 1879 at the age of 37, possibly from a lung ailment contracted during his service in Illinois. He left behind his pregnant widow, Fanny, and six children under the age of 11.
University of Chicago sociologist John Clegg is using the Union Army records of African-American men like Garvin—about 70 percent of whom were enslaved when the war began—to learn more about the process of self-emancipation. Their Compiled Military Service Records (CMSR) include the enlistee’s age, birthplace, occupation, enlistment date and location, details about their service (duties, rank, wounds, and illnesses), and the date and location of their discharge. Clegg was originally focused only on mapping the wartime service of African-American soldiers, but when he realized the wealth of data in the CMSRs, he launched a massive project that would transcribe all of these records to help out researchers.
You can find this project online here and, through a simple and free registration, join the effort to transcribe these records. Training is brief and simple, and the ability to chat with other registered transcribers addresses basic questions about the process. When details from soldiers’ CMSRs are combined with pension applications and census records, a wealth of information emerges about the African Americans who played a fundamental role in destroying slavery. Clegg’s transcription process is nearly complete, and the data compiled will be free and searchable online at the African American Civil War Museum in Washington, D.C. I encourage you to visit Clegg’s site and incorporate experiences like Abram and Fanny Garvin’s into your classrooms, writings, and conversations about America’s Civil War.—Susannah J. Ural